I recently got the chance to write two guest posts for The Travel Mommy about our Russian adoption travel. Before I was a mom, I traveled a lot for work. I became semi-pro people watcher. As much as I love being the watcher, it's really odd to get someone else's run down of you as the watched. And so... here's how easily I was pegged:
Several years ago now, we adopted from Russia. These trips often bring many frustrating last minute changes. Traveling solo on my first trip, I was greeted in Moscow with news I’d be there four days, not going to the Black Sea Coast the next day. As I now had time on my hands, I figured I would go see some sites. My driver, Val, suggested the Kremlin Armoury. He said to hire one of the people who wait near the kiosks to translate the tour. When I asked how I’d pick one out, he answered, "They’ll be by the Kremlin walls, looking for Europeans and Americans, and they will just know." That sounded weird, but off I went.
I passed Red Square, and in a heartbeat was politely approached. “Would you like a tour? You are from USA, yes?” Though a little taken aback to be assessed so quickly, I bought tickets. As time passed, I was more curious about her observations of me than the precise size of Peter the Great’s quite great foot. How did she made her mark? How did she know from 100 yards that I was an American? Dressed in clothes I bought in Moscow the day prior?
Her comments are a study in cross-culture people watching. They show that “American-ness” goes well beyond accent. It shows what the world sees when they see one of us. Her feedback contrasting Americans to others, delivered so matter-of-factly, was pretty amusing. She told me much of it just comes from watching, day in day out, and picking out all the patterns. Her word choice always seemed measured, precise. Here were some highlights:
* Straight back & shoulders set back, yet not rigid. (Thank you, yoga DVD’s)
* I looked ahead, not down.
* I looked at people. Ok with eye contact, but not forcing it.
* I was neither ignoring people, nor being intrusive-- just a casual midpoint.
* I smiled gently at the baby that passed by.
* I appeared to be walking with a purpose, but not charging through.
* I was forcing past or through people, not too meek to move through. According to her, had I pushed through with kind words, but not kind expression, she’d say Englishwoman. (HER words- no hate email please)
* Every move and gesture was casual, lacking formality or airs. So not English. (HER words)
* I did not look threatened or threatening.
* I looked at ease.
All of those things, according to her, helped narrow down that I was American. I was not very jovial, so she assumed not Canadian. I don’t know if that’s an insult to me or them in any way. (?)
So, why did all this scream American? She shared with me that her recognition of me as an American was not about hair or clothes. It wasn’t about an accent she had not yet heard. Our body language speaks about the open aspect to our culture. In her words, it shows the lack of fear we have lived under. It shows a confidence that is ingrained in generation after generation unlike in her country in which for centuries, intimidation was common. We’re polite, but never classist. We’ll look people in the eye, but not be affronted by pedestrians who do not reciprocate. Even when hurried, we’re more at ease. She said that Americans will ask, “Why not?” Why? Because we can. We basically always could. Our society over centuries has bred a casual and confident tone in all aspects of us. The very things we take for granted have influenced our very movements down a street.
It struck me that these are really great reasons to stick out like a sore thumb. As my trip progressed, and Russians I met shared recent decades from their perspectives, I thought, “You know what? We have got it pretty damn good.” No wonder we can’t help looking so, acting so, being so… well, so American.